by Stephen Tall on December 1, 2009
I’ve an article published today at The Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog, entitled, Help save Labour with PR? No thanks – republished below.
(For the record, though I’m perfectly happy with the headline, I baulk a little at the sub-ed-supplied tagline: ‘We Lib Dems might be expected to back any call for electoral reform. But we’ll steer clear of this contemptible new campaign.’ Not written by me, and I wouldn’t use the word ‘contemptible’ about Compass’s campaign.)
This week the left-leaning pressure group Compass launched a campaign for a referendum on proportional representation, its chair Neal Lawson declaring, “Labour promised a referendum on electoral reform in 1997. The case for it now is not just strong – it is unanswerable.”
It’s quite true. The case is unanswerable. It has been for at least the past 12 years. But that doesn’t mean the Lib Dems will be joining the Compass crusade. And yes, you did just read that right: the Lib Dem leadership won’t be backing the call for a PR referendum this side of the general election.
“But why not?” the baffled, massed ranks of Compass’s lefty-progressives will cry. Supporting proportional representation is to Lib Dems what publicity seeking is to Katie Price: it’s in our DNA. So why would Nick Clegg and Vince Cable be so reluctant to champion a plebiscite on electoral reform, the sooner, the better?
You don’t have to look far for your answer: just check out the nakedly self-serving news release accompanying Compass’s call for an immediate referendum. Its headline says it all: “Only a referendum on PR can save Labour now argues latest report”. It goes on to detail the psephological tsunami that could sweep Labour away over the course of the next two elections, reducing the party to a rump of just 130 MPs.
If Compass is expecting the Lib Dems to intercede to save the Labour party from extinction, they’ll be waiting a long time. At least as long, in fact, as the rest of us have been waiting for Labour to deliver on the election promises they made – both on reforming the electoral system and the unelected House of Lords – a dozen or more years ago.
Trust in politicians is, thanks to the MPs’ expenses scandal, at an all-time low. For the Labour party to grasp greedily now at the straw of electoral reform, just months before an election they are expected to lose, would be rightly seen by voters as scaling the heights of hypocrisy while scraping the bottom of the barrel of contempt. The reverse Midas touch that afflicts all tired, discredited, fag-end governments would taint the cause of electoral reform in the eyes even of those voters inclined to support it. A referendum held in these circumstances would kill off for a generation the prospect of introducing a fair, proportional voting system.
Nor – and, yes, this is a Lib Dem speaking – is electoral reform on its own sufficient to address the democratic deficit in this country. As Nick Clegg has already set out in his 100-day Take Back Power programme, reforming our democracy means giving voters the chance to sack their MPs, capping donations to political parties to curb the influence of special interests, and introducing fixed-term parliaments … as well as electoral and House of Lords reform. It’s a package of measures, all of which are essential if we’re serious about restoring our democracy after the battering it’s taken this year. Lib Dems are not going to start slicing and dicing these measures to suit the Labour party’s plunging poll ratings.
Those are the high-minded reasons. There is also a lower, more tactical, reason why the Lib Dems won’t welcome a call for a PR referendum before the election.
The plain fact is that it would be – in the words of a close adviser to Nick Clegg I spoke to – “electoral suicide” for the Lib Dems to be seen to buddy up with an unpopular Labour party in demanding a PR referendum that would be seen by the public to be solely about saving the electoral skins of Labour MPs. Especially as the only voting system most Labour MPs would be prepared to consider is the alternative vote, which can produce election results even more distorted than the failed first-past-the-post system contrives.
I began with a couple of sentences from Compass’s Neal Lawson; let me finish by providing the second half of his quote:
Failure to act could well mean this is not just a defeated Labour government, but the last Labour government. It is time to change the game. Otherwise ‘our turn’ might never come round again. This will have been Labour’s last turn.
Labour has had 12 years in which to renew the democratic fabric of this country. They failed to do anything about it because, quite simply, they didn’t care enough about it. If they care now, it is only because it’s expedient to; and expediency is the worst possible motive for reform.
I hope Lawson’s Jeremiah-like prophecy proves correct, and that Gordon Brown does lead the last Labour government. Because the Liberal Democrats stand ready to take Labour’s place, and take the fight to the Tories on a progressive platform promoting social justice, civil liberties, environmental action, fair taxation and democratic reform.
It’s a couple of years since I last contributed to CIF, and I’d forgotten the wonderful virulence of its commenters. I started trying to read them, but soon decided life was too short (though there are some good points made amidst all the SHOUTING).
Much more reasonably, fellow Lib Dem blogger Darrell Goodliffe takes me to task here, making the point that policies are nearly always achieved through pragmatic compromise, which might often be termed expediency. As I responded to Darrell, though, attemtping to crystallise my argument:
I’ve no problems with dealing with the politics of pragmatism/expediency (delete according to taste). What I think would be dangerous – and the central thrust of my article – would be for the Lib Dems to latch-on to a campaign that’s clearly being orchestrated by those who have Labour’s interests at heart first and foremost, rather than democracy’s.
If Labour sprung a referendum on PR on the British public now in a naked attempt to save their own seats, it would be defeated, and defeated big. That would be a disaster for the cause of electoral reform. If the Lib Dems supported Labour in doing it, it would also be a disaster for the party.